The first time I showed up at “sick call” during Army basic training, 16 in my company of 250 filled the first sergeant’s office displaying blisters worn through to flesh. Both of my Achilles were bloody and I could hardly walk, much less run in combat boots. This ailment stayed with me through four months of infantry training and six months of officer training, the latter including “jorks,” jogs of five miles carrying an M-14 and wearing a fully loaded backpack.
Periodically, an Army doctor would prescribe low quarters, regular shoes, so I could continue training. And to this day, nerve damage in my left foot causes pain and numbness in several toes.
I relate this sad tale to demonstrate this point: Of the 16 complainers that day, only four of us withstood the first sergeant’s shaming condemnation and actually went to see a doctor. The other 12 were bullied into submission, made to feel like cowards and laggards. Our treatment then was matched with another warning. Don’t write to your congressman and complain because the chain of command will send that letter to your company commander and you will be in hot water.
No one who has served in the military should be surprised that there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault recently reported. I wondered about the huge jump and asked a friend, a woman who served four years and left the Army as a captain. She related that a male senior officer had harassed her on her first tour of duty. It didn’t matter that she was married and warned him off. She is an attractive woman, and, as she said, “boys will be boys.” Today though, she believes the overall environment has improved, leading more women to report sexual assaults and harassment. Regardless, she said, there is still an arrogant “good old boy network” protecting offenders.
As the father of four daughters and grandfather of six granddaughters, I see the existence of a network of men who will lie to protect other men as so far from honorable as to be repulsive. Military officers are sworn to tell the truth. Always. They are also expected to uphold positive leadership characteristics including empathy, dedication, judiciousness, loyalty, trust and understanding. Note that arrogance is not one. Yet I saw it many times from officers who believed that once silver or gold bars, oak leaf clusters, eagles or stars were pinned on their shoulders they were automatically imbued with greater intelligence and overriding power. And that first morning on sick call was my first encounter with its corruption.
Years before the reality of Hillary Clinton as a viable presidential candidate, my wife asked a good question: Where are all the women running for president? That was in August 2000, when we didn’t like any of the candidates. The idea for a book struck me, so one night we sat down and brainstormed to describe the ideal first woman president. She had to be “flameproof,” and Hailey MacMurray, the leading lady in my novel, was certainly that. She was spick and span, highly intelligent, smart, an All-American athlete and attractive. Hailey would attend the Air Force Academy and graduate at the top of her class on the way to becoming a jet fighter pilot. And become a widowed, single mom. How could the hawks vote against such a phenomenon?
Then real life intervened. Almost between chapters in my writing life at home, I was introduced to the daughter of an office secretary where I worked as part-time gofer. Personable and well-mannered, she was an all-state volleyball player, and as a freshman at the Air Force Academy was so good she was on the starting varsity.
Then she was sexually assaulted at the academy. Her mother’s grief at work was palpable and mixed with the fear that her husband was threatening to take his gun to the academy and shoot somebody, anybody. But on top of the anguish of the assault came this message to the young woman from the “brass”: Resign. Quit school. That’s what all the other women have done.
Say again? Where was the empathy, loyalty, trust and understanding?
Twenty-six thousand sexual assaults tell me the chain of command does not work and should not be considered for reporting such felonies, court martial offenses. Yet the Inspector General reporting system is set up for just such cases. If the IG system is not working, then it’s time, in Army lingo, to take names and kick ass.
Bill Ellis is a local author who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.